Notes on Reading. Nonfiction.
Elaine Sciolino, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs. Norton, 2016.
“As a female flaneuse, I had to recalibrate the way I gathered information. I had to wander up and down the street at random hours of the day and night. I had to hang around people and drop in and out of their shops and their lives with regularity.”
This is how Sciolino gives us an informative, entertaining, and intimate look at one street in Paris. We gain insights into French history and current customs. Each of the twenty-two chapters features a locale and its denizens. Favorites: searching for the history of the street’s name, recalling Thomas Jefferson’s life there, learning about the Jewish community, the intellectual atmosphere of book stores, visiting a dive bar, a drag cabaret, a second-hand clothing shop, and learning about Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the birthplace of the Jesuits and the site of baptism of many great French people. The book is handsomely illustrated with photographs, and the quotations that begin each chapter are intriguing.
Bland Simpson, Into the Sound Country: A Carolinian’s Coastal Plain. Photography by Ann Cary Simpson. The University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
In each of the thirteen chapters, Simpson gives us an intimate look at life on the North Carolina coastal plain, from north to south. He includes interesting and entertaining personal anecdotes from his life there, beginning with his childhood in Elizabeth City, and concluding with a family Christmas visit in Beaufort during a rare snowstorm. He tells local legends, presents memorable character sketches, and when appropriate, includes historical facts (nineteenth century plantation life, naval stores, boat building), and raises social concerns (pollution, poverty). Favorites: the Sunny Side Oyster Bar in Williamston; searching for and witnessing the mysterious Waco Light; childhood in Elizabeth City, the Sans Souci ferry on the Cashie River, teenage episode of Topsail Island. Simpson has a good ear for dialogue. His writing is vivid, and Ann Cary Simpson’s photographs complete the reading experience.
Notes on Reading. Fiction.
Rick Bass, In the Loyal Mountains. Mariner, 1995.
This collection of ten short stories features various characters, most in harmony with environments: in “a little one-horse shell of an ex-town,” in rural Mississippi, in the bayous around Houston, near the waters of Galveston, in the Texas Hill Country, in the northern Rockies. Plots and characters are not developed, and the suggestions lead the reader into musing about the mystery and magnificence of Nature and of the place of humans in it.
Jon Hassler, Staggerford. Ballantine, 1977.
In the 1980’s I read and enjoyed several of the novels of Hassler. I enjoyed the re-reading of this novel of small town life in Minnesota. The novel features Miles Pruitt, the thirty-five-year-old senior English teacher at the local high school, and his association with students, colleagues, and other people of the community. Beneath the slow-paced life is much potential for unrest: racial unrest, incompetent and self-serving school administrators, insanity, immorality. Most of the problems are dealt with by gentle good humor and forbearance. Memorable characters, other than the protagonist, are Miss Agatha McGee, the teacher’s landlady and friend, who teaches at the local Catholic grade school; the philandering dentist; the friendly and incompetent school superintendent; the Bonewoman, the demented parent of a student; Beverly Bingham, the needy student. The sentence in which the protagonist is shot and killed is shocking. I re-read it more than twice on first reading, and twice on this re-reading. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of groups of twelfth-grade English students, classes that are apathetic, obstreperous, noncommittal, intellectual. Hassler knows and loves his characters, and the reading and re-reading of the novels provide good hours of entertainment. (Other novels by Hassler I enjoyed: A Green Journey. North of Hope, Grand Opening.)
Quotations from readings.
“Fireflies are blinking, floating out in the field as if searching with lanterns for something.” (Rick Bass, “The History of Rodney”)
“You can give the French no higher compliment than to call them intellectuals.” (Elaine Sciolino, The Only Street in Paris)
“. . . Miles had been reared by Catholic parents and educated by sisters and monks, but ten years ago, at the age of twenty-five, he had lost his faith in the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Day of Judgment, and Life Everlasting. He had lost the whole works. His faith had not been crushed by a disillusioning experience; it had not been argued away by a glib heretic, it had simply evaporated. He was not particularly pleased to have lost it, nor did he long to have it back. His faith was gone, and that was that.” (Jon Hassler, Staggerford)
“We passed some old wharf pilings, a dead tree with eighteen skulking buzzards in it, a bleak jury and a half to happen upon, as if this breed of bird were so demoralized by its millions of years at the world’s boneyards and charnel houses that its posture at rest was a hunched and hunkered stillness, a grim, cold, timeless judgment upon the warm and living: ‘You, too, will be mine in time.'” (Bland Simpson, Into the Sound Country)
Thank you for reading. I hope your days are going well.